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"The Boxer" is a folk rock ballad written by Paul Simon in 1968 and first recorded by Simon & Garfunkel. It was released as the follow up single to their number one hit "Mrs. Robinson", and reached #7 in the US charts. It later appeared on their last studio album, Bridge over Troubled Water, along with its B-side "Baby Driver". It is particularly known for its plaintive refrain, in which the singer sings the tune as 'lie-la-lie', and the memorable finger-picking guitar played by guitarist Fred Carter, Jr.. Rolling Stone ranked the song #105 on their list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

Creation and recording

The original recording of the song is one of the duo's most highly produced, and took over 100 hours to record. The recording was performed at multiple locations, including Nashville, St. Paul's Chapelmarker in New York Citymarker, and Columbia studios.

The version originally released on single by the duo features an instrumental melody written by Art Garfunkel and played in unison on pedal steel guitar and piccolo trumpet. The song also features a bass harmonica heard during the second and final verses. On the BBC, Paul Simon had Garfunkel's instrumental solo played with a soprano saxophone.

In the magazine Fretboard Journal, number 12, Winter 2008, Fred Carter Jr. recounts:

"I had a baby Martin, which is a 000-18, and when we started the record in New York with Roy Halee, the engineer, and Paul [Simon] was playin' his Martin--I think it's a D-18 and he was tuned regular--he didn't have the song totally written lyrically, but he had most of the melody. And so all I was hearin' was bits and pieces while he was doing' his fingerpicking...I think he was fingerpicking in an open C. I tried two or three things and then picked up the baby Martin, which was about a third above his guitar, soundwise.

"And I turned down the first string to a D, and tuned up the bass string to a G, which made it an open-G tuning, except for the fifth string, which was standard. Did some counter fingerpicking with him, just did a little backward roll, and Iucked into a lick. And that turned into that little roll, and we cut it, just Paul I, two guitars. Then we started to experiment with some other ideas and so forth. At the end of the day, we were still on the song. Garfunkel was amblin’ around the studio, hummin’ and havin’ input at various times. They were real scientists. They’d get on a part, and it might be there [unfinished] six weeks later.On my guitar, they had me miked with about seven mics. They had a near mic, a distant mic, a neck mic, a mic on the hole. They even miked my breathing. They miked the guitar in back. So Roy Halee was a genius at getting around. The first time we were listenin’, they killed the breathing mic. And they had an ambient mic overhead, which picked up the two guitars together, I suppose. And so, I was breathin’, I guess, pretty heavy in rhythm. And they wanted to take out that noise, and they took it out and said, ‘Naw, we gotta leave that in.’ That sounds almost like a rhythm on the record. So they left the breathin’ mic on for the mix. I played Tele on it and a 12-string, three or four guitars on it. I was doing different guitar parts. One was a chord pattern and rhythm pattern. Did the Dobro lick on the regular six-string finger Dobro—not a slide Dobro.

"I never heard the total record until I heard it on the air… I thought, That’s the greatest record I heard in my life, especially after the scrutiny and after all the time they spent on it and breakin’ it apart musically and soundwise and all of it. There was some magic in the studio that day, and Roy Halee captured it. Paul and I had really nice groove.“

Lyrics

The song's lyrics take the form of a first-person lament, as the singer describes his struggles to overcome loneliness and poverty in New York Citymarker. The final verse switches to a third-person sketch of a boxer, who, despite the effects of "every glove that laid him down or cut him till he cried out", perseveres. At the last we are told the boxer cries out "I am leaving, I am leaving"--but, the lyrics go on, "the fighter still remains."

It is sometimes suggested that the lyrics represent a "sustained attack on Bob Dylan". Bob Dylan in turn covered the song on his Self Portrait album, replacing the word "glove" with "blow." Paul Simon himself has suggested that the lyrics are largely autobiographical, written during a time when he felt he was being unfairly criticized:

"I think I was reading the Bible around that time. That's where I think phrases such as 'workman's wages' came from, and 'seeking out the poorer quarters'. That was biblical. I think the song was about me: everybody's beating me up, and I'm telling you now I'm going to go away if you don't stop."


The chorus of the song is wordless, consisting of a repeated chant of "lie-la-lie". Simon stated that this was due to a lapse on his part:

"I didn't have any words!
Then people said it was 'lie' but I didn't really mean that.
That it was a lie.
But, it's not a failure of songwriting, because people like that and they put enough meaning into it, and the rest of the song has enough power and emotion, I guess, to make it go, so it's all right.
But for me, every time I sing that part...
[softly], I'm a little embarrassed."


If one listens carefully to the song - as it was recorded for the "Bridge Over Troubled Water" album - it appears as if there was an error made. The words "...and a fighter by his trade" sounds as if someone mistakenly sang "...and a fighter by his dreams."

"Missing" verse

"The Boxer" was originally written with a verse that is not present in the Bridge Over Troubled Water version:
Now the years are rolling by me

They are rocking evenly

And I am older than I once was

And younger than I'll be, but that's not unusual.

No, it isn't strange

After changes upon changes

We are more or less the same

After changes we are more or less the same


This "missing verse" was performed by Simon & Garfunkel when they went on tour in November 1969, and Paul Simon when he performed it solo after the group's breakup. Simon & Garfunkel also performed the "missing verse" on NBC's Saturday Night in 1975 and when they reunited for The Concert in Central Park in 1981, and on Late Show with David Letterman.

Subsequent versions

Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond, Emmylou Harris, The Samples, and Across the Border have recorded cover versions of the song, with Harris' version reaching the top ten on the US country charts in June 1980. Joan Baez has also made the song a staple of her live concert performances, from the late 1970s to the present. (Baez usually includes the above-mentioned missing verse in her version.) The King's Singers released an a cappella version on their Good Vibrations album in 1992. Guitar virtuoso Chet Atkins recorded an instrumental version, in which each verse was played on a different guitar and in a different style. Punk group SFH recorded a 3:26 second version of it.

The song has also been included in several live Simon & Garfunkel recordings. On Old Friends: Live on Stage keyboardist Rob Schwimmer plays the Garfunkel tune on a Theremin.

Simon sang the song to open Saturday Night Live on September 29, 2001, the first live SNL show following the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York Citymarker.

In 2007, Paul Simon was awarded the inaugural Gershwin Prize by the Library of Congressmarker where The Boxer was performed live by Jerry Douglas, Shawn Colvin and Alison Krauss.

References


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